Sunday, November 2, 2008

Fly: A Kite in Hermann Park

Before the hurricane, I decided to take up a mellow hobby that involved going outside. Kite flying came to mind after reading Limor Fried's instructions for Single Use Digital Cameras for KAP [Kite Aerial Photography].

I had never flown a kite before, so down to Galveston to
Kites Unlimited. Remember that I bought the kite and flew it before the hurricane, so I don't know if Kites Unlimited is still open or what Hermann Park looks like. The store clerk there was very helpful, and a test flight at a nearby beach proved successful.

Galveston is windier than Houston, so flying in Houston would be more challenging. As you can see in the video below, I did get off the ground. Overall, a good time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Endure: Hurricane Ike (Part 2)

Tuesday ends, and most of the city is still without power. Water is back up. The phones and gas have always been on.

Traffic on the way to work was very light. Nearly all the stoplights are non-functional, though the roads have are also all nearly cleared. What tomorrow brings is still impossible to predict. Wednesday 17 September will not be as certain as 10 September was.

I'm using the words "most", "nearly all", and "virtually all" a lot, because those are accurate terms to use. Most businesses operated at less-than-optimal capacity, if they were open at all. When gas stations have gas, long lines form. Grocery stores close early. Laundromats close early. The curfew is still in place.

Ike was just a Cat 2 storm! It was a Cat 1 when it passed over Houston proper. Imagine what havoc Rita would have caused!

Today is Tuesday, and four solid days have passed since conventional business is possible. What is impossible is the ability to buy groceries and gasoline while holding a regular 9-5 job. Right now, individuals must choose between going to work at regular hours, or buying gas or food.

I did not imagine this happening. I did not imagine the evisceration that would happen in the aftermath of the storm. All this from a Cat 2 storm.

All this instructs us to know that one cannot depend on power, gas, and food deliveries at least four days after a Cat 2 storm. When we recover from this storm, we should keep in mind what we would need to prepare for, when a Cat 5 storm comes along.

My best wishes to those repairing the electrical grid, cleaning the streets, and trying to see to their property.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Endure: Hurricane Ike

First, major thanks to Pam and John Odom. They took my sister, my roommate, and myself into their home, for the hurricane. I cannot thank them enough, and hope that we as guests can return the favor one day.

The part of the hurricane's aftermath that affected the everyone was the lack of power. As I type (5:11 pm Sunday 14 September), power has still not returned to much of the city. Combine that with the awfully humid, still weather Saturday night, has produced a unique misery.

Houston is in shambles. While most buildings suffered little damage, many, if not most trees have been severely damaged, if not out-right downed. Roads have tree trunks across them, making driving a kind of dodge 'em affair. Traffic only continues to build from the virtual ghost-town of Friday towards the back-to-business-and-them-some of...Monday? Tuesday?

Schools are closed for Monday, some open Tuesday, most by Wednesday. The Galleria was open this afternoon, and is packed. The food court especially has astoundingly long lines. The Taco Bell on Gessner had a line out onto Gessner southbound. If a store is open, it is packed. Anything to get out of the house.

Before Ike hit, I was thinking that so far, people in the area are acting based on the lessons they learned from Rita. There was no panicky evacuation. Everyone prepared, some got out, some hunkered down, and we'll bounce back.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Read: The Foundation (the first two books), by Isaac Asimov

I have read relatively little "classic" science fiction, the earliest story of which is War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, published in 1898. From what I recall, it is one example of Victorian/Edwardian-era literature that doesn't "feel" like something from that era. It doesn't read like Charles Dickens, for instance.

Nothing comes to mind for the decades of 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, but for the 1940s, there is The Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. According to Wiki (as of 6 September 2008), the stories within Foundation were published from 1942 through 1950. The "feel" of the book is like pulpy, comic-book science fiction, the kind that you can imagine, with characters talking like snarky New Yorkers.

The overall concept is bold: The Galactic Empire is failing, slowly but surely, and one guy has figured it out. Hari Seldon, psychohistorian, has modeled civilization mathematically, and has seen the future, mathematically speaking. He arranges the creation of a Foundation (two, actually, but that is mentioned only once in the first book, and again once or twice in the second book) to preserve the scientific knowledge after the Empire falls.

Naturally, the powers that be at the Empire do not like the idea of someone spreading word that their government system is going to fail, and that there is nothing that anyone can do to stop it. This doesn't stop Hari, who tells a young protege, Gaal Dornick, about his work. The suspense builds; will Gaal be able to create the Foundation? Will someone from the Empire try to stop them? Will anyone not talk like they have an attitude problem? All that and more, just turn the page to read the next chapter and--

--fifty or so years have passed. What happened? Well, apparently, the Foundation was established, and it has a bunch of scientist and bureaucrats arguing. At this point, I had a hard time caring. What happend to Hari and Gaal? Who are these new people? Why are they all so sarcastic? There is a crisis or something, political parties form, and something like a revolution occurs, and so then you turn the page and--

--not again! Sixty or so years have passed, another crisis, new characters, new names, no new attitudes...

And so it goes for the rest of the book. The reader goes through a history of the first two or three centuries of the Foundation itself, faster than one goes through American history in fifth grade. Imagine reading the personal accounts and meetings of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Then, just as Washington refused to be elected to a third term, you turn the page and--

--Kansas is bleeding! Now you have Congressmen beating each other up, and South Carolina secedes and...what is going on?

The point is, one can excuse the reader for thinking that the story of The Foundation is really the story of the crises of the first Foundation. As if nothing of interest ever happens on Foundation in between the crises. To top it all off, near or just after the resolution of each crisis, a scheduled hologram appearance of Hari lets viewers and the reader know that he, Hari, saw the whole thing, and that such-and-such should have happened.

The reason for this story arrangement is that The Foundation was not published as a complete body of work. Asimov wrote each crisis as an independent story. This would explain the near-zero character development that occurs. By the end of the book, I could have cared less about what happened to the Foundation or its residents, especially since Hari reminds everyone that he saw it coming, but won't tell you what's going to happen next, since that would violate one of the laws of psychohistory.

So, onto the second book, Foundation and Empire. This book is actually much more interesting, featuring things like character development. This book is also actually two stories, one after the other. They are both crisis stories, but the reader follows two or three characters as each crisis unfolds over months and years. This in-depth approach actually lets the reader know more about what happened before each crisis, in a casual, non-encyclopedic way.

The first story is about a General, named Bel Riose, who thinks that he can take on Foundation. Why? Just because he has been successful in the past. By this point, the Empire (still falling, three or so centuries after Foundation was started) has lost technological superiority over the Foundation, despite having a much larger population. What is comedic about this story is that one of the people that Bel consults, tells Bel that he will fail. How Bel will fail is not known exactly, but since his success would mean the demise of the Foundation, Bel will fail. Foundation cannot fail, which means that anyone who tries to destroy will somehow not succeed.

So much for anyone.

What about anything?

The second story in Foundation and Empire is so far the most interesting story in Foundation. Two newlyweds, Toran and Bayta, meet a performing jester, Magnifico, and take him with them on their travels. Meanwhile, a civil war is brewing between Foundation and the surrounding planets. And then, something, known as the Mule, begins to take over the planets. The Mule can do something no one else can -- manipulate other people's emotions. Mostly, in a negative way. He kills morale, brings people over to his side, and sort of saunters his way to power.

So, Toran and Bayta find themselves on the run with Magnifico and a scientist, trying to find ways to defeat the Mule. After an encounter with a mind-controlled agent of the Mule, and a run-in with other unsavory characters, Bayta points out one fact: after all their running, why are they the only ones who haven't fallen under the power of the Mule?

Overall, if you can get past the first book, the second one is pretty good. Foundation encompasses a whole series of books, making reading the entirety of the story as daunting as reading The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. If you have the patience, it's worth it.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Read: The Mystery of Capital

In all of American history, you probably learned just how land ownership was conferred, approved, and made transferable. In Texas, empresarios recruited colonists to settle in the then-Mexican state. The Texas General Land Office says,

Mexico retained ownership of the land within a colony until the colony's land commissioner issued title to it. The colony's actual boundaries were therefore determined by the extent of settlement within it, rather than by the boundaries specified in the contract. Mexico made more than two dozen empresario contracts, about half of which were even partially carried out. However, empresarios brought about 50,000 settlers to Texas between 1821 and 1836.

...

The Colonization Law of 1825 also created the office of land commissioner. Because Texas was so large, the governor was authorized to appoint commissioners who would issue land titles, maintain land records and provide the colonists with copies, maps their regions and supervise surveys. In addition, commissioners were to take the oath of allegiance from new settlers, appoint surveyors, select sites and mark the streets for new towns and provide and maintain ferries. Payment for performing these duties would come from title fees collected from colonists.

Source.

Texas apparently did not go through the same trouble that colonists went through in other parts of the United States, and what people in many developing countries currently experience.

The problem of land ownership, title, and transfer is a major stumbling block, and that is the thesis of Hernando de Soto's book, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. This book is important, and explains why some countries, like the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and others are wealthy, and why some seem to stumble or spin their wheels.

De Soto claims that mystery of capital is such because it has received the least amount of attention from activists and the media. Economic reforms have been tried before, and in many countries, they have failed to bring about the long-term economic growth that the US has experience since the 1930s. Even today, leaders like Hugo Chavez propose economic policies that are troublesome at best, and disastrous at worst.

The mystery of capital, of why many countries have trouble building wealth, is actually five separate mysteries: the mystery of missing information, of capital itself, of political awareness, the lessons of US history, and that of legal failure. De Soto devotes a chapter to discussing each of these, and proposing solutions.

The missing information is just that: no one really knows who owns what, outside one's inner circle of friends. Much of this comes from fairly recent, post-1950 economic development. De Soto compare's the post-World War II development of the third world to the post-Revolution developments that occured in Europe and the new United States. The Industrial Revolution was not isolated to the city; its impact was felt in the countryside. Then as is now, people left the agricultural sectors permanently. When they left, they found themselves against a legal system that made entry into legal property ownership, employment, business management so difficult as to be impossible. De Soto cites the example of Lima, Peru:
Our goal was to create a new and perfectly legal business. The team then began filling out the forms, standing in the lines, and making the bus trips into central Lima to get all the certifications required to operate, according to the letter of the law, a small business in Peru. They spent six hours a day at it and finally registered the business-289 days later (18).
With hurdles like these, no one should wonder why so much the economy in developing countries is underground. De Soto has charts in his book that details the mind-numbing process that people in countries like Peru, Phillipines, Egypt, and Haiti must go through to become legit. It takes 168 steps and 13 - 25 years to formalize property in Phillipines. Seventy-seven steps and 6 - 14 years to "gain access to desert land for construction purposes and to register these property rights in Egypt" (22 - 24).

De Soto and his colleagues have done a stunning amount of historical research, going back to Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Economists such as these attempted to define capital, and de Soto says that capital is an abstraction that must be realized, that is, made into something concrete, fungible. Only that which can produce greater value is capital. A car that transports one to work, so that one may earn money, to buy other things (like a replacement car) is capital. A car used for joy-riding is not capital, until put to productive use. De Soto claims that several billion dollars of "dead capital" exists in most of the world, mostly in people's houses, workplaces, and business transactions. Few of these are recorded, made public, and given titles, proof of ownership.

What does exist is an ad-hoc network of informal systems. How to prove that you own what you own? You have a piece of paper, issued by some office, but that office is itself not a legal establishment. The only proof you have is your word, the word of your friends and family, and your neighbors. A stranger has little reason to trust you, and you have little reason to trust them. Among those strangers, is the local, state, provincial, and federal governments.

The word "messy" does not begin to describe the chaotic approach millions of people have taken to securing employment, buy houses, set up utilities, and, well, build capital. It is as if the way that undocumented immigrants have gotten jobs were extrapolated to most of the US population. People like you and me, driving cars, working on computers, renting apartments, blogging, doing all of that without licenses, registration, an accurate electric meter, housing inspections, and a journalist license. Imagine spending years of your life to get an officially sanctioned house. You would probably blow the process off, find a house, arrange payment, move in. You hope that nobody comes knocking on your door, claiming to have a piece of paper demonstrating ownership of the property that was given to them decades ago by the previous government.

At one point, something like that existed even in the US. De Soto writes how in centuries past, the transition from extralegal arrangements to inclusive was made throughout Europe, North America, and Japan. The process then was not easy, and in the US took nearly the entirety of the 19th century. Progress was made in fits and starts, with a lot of emotional rhetoric on the part of lawmakers.

The part where de Soto describes US history is for me the most alive part of the book, no doubt at least in part because I'm an American, and the Wild West is romantic, if only in very fuzzy hindsight. He writes,
The governments and judiciary of the young states, not yet so legally united, were trying to cope with the law and disorder of migrants, squatters, gold diggers, armed gangs, illegal entrepeneurs, and the rest of the colorful characters who made the settling of the American West so wild and, if only in hindsight, so romantic. To a Third Worlder like me [de Soto], this picture of the gringo past is astonishingly familiar. Although my colleagues and I have trouble relating to 11,000 on the Dow Jones, we feel quite at home among the squatters in Thomas Jefferson's Virginia or the log cabin settlements of Daniel Boone's Kentucky (107).

This is an important fact: America was a 3rd World Country, too. Its progress from 3rd to 1st was not due solely to technology or (as some would have it) providence. It was the way that the law reflected the vast majority's outlook on life and its processes. The law reflects society's habits, not commands it. The law is useless if irrelevant and impossible to enforce. Every citizen would do well to be acutely aware of that fact.

If only modifying the law were to be so easy. De Soto says that developing nations have spent more than a century trying to reform property laws, but to little avail. He thinks the problem rests on misconceptions on the part of the reformers. The people who attempt to fix the problem seem to fall in the trap of thinking that people who live and work extralegally do so to avoid taxes, or that proper surveying and recordation is necessary. Maybe the powers-that-be think that the current law is sufficient enough, and that enforcing compliance is the issue. Maybe other leaders think that the current social contracts, however informal, can just be ignored, and that in any case high-level leadership is not necessary.

De Soto deconstructs each of these arguments and demonstrates their fallibilities. Living in the extralegal sector is hardly a tax break, compared to all the "favors" that one must pay to avoid crossing the local gangs. Proper surveying in the United States was not conducted until after property law was reformed.

There is a point in the book that makes me wonder if de Soto contradicted himself. At one point in the book, de Soto writes "Does that mean that lawyers should lead the integration process? No. Implementing major legal change is a political responsibility" (158). Later, he says, "To be sure, the battle [of property law reform] was uphill all the way, mainly because, as Peter Stein has remarked, lawyers' 'contribution to a proper understanding of legal institutions was obscured by their emphasis on antiquarianism and their acceptance of Roman law as a finished product.' Nevertheless, over time, great European jurists overcame excessive rigidity because as Stein points out, they 'made it their profession to become experts in the intricacies of the Roman law, and to ensure that it moved with the time.' Against their colleagues' rampant unresponsiveness, in every European country an elite band of lawyers emerged to help lift the bell jar" (201).

Maybe de Soto thinks that lawyers need to stop venerating the law so much, and assist or lead the political process in adapting the law to be more inclusive. This is a call to profound citizenship.

De Soto concludes that if capitalism is not introduced on a micro-economic scale, then the problems afflicting developing countries threatens their already fragile stability. Earlier I mentioned that non-capitalist movements are seeing a revival, with all their problems. Capitalism for the elite is a bad investment in the long-term.

I conclude by saying that this is one of the most important books of this era. This book should have been published, distributed, and injected into the popular global mindset back in 1991. I posit that many, if not most, economic problems are unnecessary. They are the result of bad management, poor risk evaluation, and now as the case has been demonstrated, an impossible legal framework for the majority of people in developing countries. We the people of Earth deserve better than that.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Watch: Battlestar Galactica

Few TV shows stand out, and make a lasting impression upon one's mind. Few shows make you think, days afterward, about life, meaning, religion, its followers, leadership, the things that leaders must do to convince their followers that the path that they are on is indeed the right path. Few shows have dared to be arty, weird, funny, sad, subtle, symbolic, romantic, passionate, and tragic.

Battlestar Galactica (BSG for short), the new one, is one of those shows. It is one of the best TV shows I have ever seen. It is certainly the best American (though it was partnered with British network Sky for its first season) show I have ever seen. The best TV show I've ever seen, though it was actually an OVA, is Legend of the Galactic Heroes (LoGH). The best broadcast network TV show I've seen is Lost. Special mention goes to Doctor Who, for pure inventiveness, but its stories are inherently non-linear as the years go by, so I cannot say that there is a coherent episode-to-episode story like BSG, LoGH, or Lost. There you have the categories.

BSG started out as a miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel, and is now in its fourth season of regular programming. Summarizing this show is difficult, and can take a while. I will focus on just the parts that stick out in my own mind.

Gaius Baltar's vision of the Opera House, and other visions of music and architecture. The music stands out, and what cemented in my own mind that this show was becoming a work of art. The scene is not pretentious, as it is consistent with Baltar's previous visions of Number 6, and the Opera House will figure prominently in later episodes. But, listen to the music! Count the layers of sound! The architecture stands out, because how often do interior layouts, design, and lighting get such high billing and focus? I'm not sure what the Opera House is supposed to mean, other than as a setting for drama, or a cultural bond that humans and cylons share.

The human culture. The humans mostly worship a pantheon of gods. In fact, their culture reminds me of what the Roman Empire might have been like if it had not fallen. Imagine Rome being the center of the world, politically and financially, with computers, space travel, and a (somewhat) democratic process. BSG is not entirely into world-building, which has its pluses and minuses.

On the plus side, Caprica and the other colonies were destroyed, so in the context of the story, they are the past. The show is about the trying to live after the attack, not about life before the attack. Supposedly, a new show, called Caprica, will depict life as it was. That new show would be almost entirely world-building, though if it depicts life decades before the cylons blew everything up, the show could be filmed in present-day Vancouver and no one would justifiably holler "where's the sci-fi city!" Also, world-building often strikes me as poorly-done, since sci-fi tends to have a poor track record in getting future predictions right.

On the down side, enough colonial culture exists in BSG, differing from US culture, that it leaves questions, such as:

Why do most, if not all, documents and photographs have their corners filleted, to form octagon-like shapes?

Why do men and women live in such an explicitly gender-neutral culture (men and women share public bathrooms, and refer to each other as "sir")? How was this achieved?

Given that advanced AI exists, and has existed, and space travel is far advanced, why do human lifespans seem so normal? It's OK that they don't, just...why? I know that advanced space travel and artificial intelligence does not guarantee a greatly reduced incidence of heart disease, but someone should bring it up. At least complain about it.

And, so on. I understand that there has to be some differences, otherwise the show would be Americans in Space on the Run from Monotheistic Robots. But, what differences that do exist, an explanation or reason would be nice.

Another thing (aside from the music/architecture/visions, and their culture), is the high quality of the acting. I don't know if acting is like fashion: it has its cycles and moments, or is something that can be said to evolve, similar to advertising. Advertisers try to convince you to buy something, don't actors try to convince you to believe what they're saying? Maybe the whole subject is, well, subjective. I can't remember a time when the characters acted contrary to previously established behaviors (looking at you, Lost) , but otherwise don't devolve into stereotypes or have over-simplified personalities.

Special attention should go to Katee Sackhoff, who plays Starbuck, and is the first actor I've seen to effectively communicate doubt and dread while barely flinching a facial muscle. She is the most complex person on the show, even more so than Baltar. She loves two men, marries one, is sent out on the most dangerous, strategically ambiguous missions, and maybe even "dies" and returns from the "dead" with photos of Earth and a brand new spaceship. She drinks, smokes, plays cards, had a stash of drugs back on Caprica, is fiercely loyal to Odama, and is currently convinced she must find Earth. All that, and the Cylon Hybrid takes a break from its non-stop babble to grab Starbuck's arm and tell her that she, Starbuck, is the "harbinger of death".

Harsh.

I won't go into an episode-by-episode re-hash of the show. You can visit Ack-Attack's website for that. I just think that any creative endeavor, even video games and TV, can become a work of art, though of two different kinds.

Just as a painting or sculpture tries to evoke an emotion, however abstract, video entertainment can achieve a similar effect. The problem is that these are new forms of media, and don't have centuries of background like other conventional art forms. How long before photography became an art form? Movies? Few paintings have the status of the The Last Supper or Starry Knight, or sculpture like that of Venus de Milo or David. They reflect the idealization, honoring one's cultural background, or that which exists naturally. They stand as wonderful representations of the era in which it was produced.

Can video games transcend technology? Can the romance of 8-bit go beyond nostalgia of the 1980s? Is Myst the first attempt at such transcendence? How about A Mind Forever Voyaging, an attempt at literary video gaming? Can TV be art? 2001: A Space Odyssey manages to be both art and sci-fi. Same for Metropolis. Why not TV? Not an adaptation of previous literary work, but a project conceived explicitly for 22- or 45- minute long viewing segments. Something that will stand as being symbolic of its era.

I saw an episode of The X-Files a few months ago, more than a decade after that particular episode aired, and several years since the show ended. At that moment, I realized how much TV (well, the kind of TV I watch) has progressed, or at least changed. The technology, exhibited on-show as well as used in the production of the show, had changed. Camera positioning and movement styles had changed. The fashion, cars, and particular political outlook (post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror) was so...'90s. All that was missing was music from the Stone Temple Pilots, and a kid playing the first generation Sony Playstation. But those are mostly details, like synthesizer music in the 1980s and afros in the 1970s.

Is Battlestar Galactica the first show to be TV as art?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Play: Halo: Combat Evolved

Can there be a more perfect game than this? After playing games like Pac-Man, to Super Mario, to Sonic the Hedgehog, to SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4, SimTower, SimIsle, Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy (as well as '90s-era DOS games like Jill of the Jungle, Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure, and Secret Agent), this has to be the most perfect game thus far.

The story is relatively standard pulp. You play a cybernetic super soldier, kind of like Predator, only you're the good guy. You are the faceless, anonymous, most-awesome-looking body armor-wearing Master Chief. I'm not a fan of body armor by and large. The closest I got to wearing it was when I used to play ice hockey, and donning and doffing it was tedious and dull. Not Master Chief. The dude lives in it, and lives to fight the alien bad guys.

The alien bad guys are on a religious quest to wipe out the human race, and you begin playing in the middle of the story, whereby you and the aliens have come to a head at this massive ring-world built by someone other than the humans and the aliens you were fighting. The micro-awesome is the MC's armor, but the macro-aweseome belongs to the Halo itself. The game designers were thoughtful enough to include it within the perspective of actually being on the Halo. Meaning? You get cool scenes like this:


Source: theblogComics.com

I want to drive on a freeway going around this thing. For those of you who read different science fiction than I did, yes, I know, shades of Larry Niven.

Beyond that, you shoot shoot shoot, kill kill kill. That part is not particularly special. What is special is the way the game teaches you how to play. After watching the movie that begins the game (it seems virtually all non-sim games since 2000 have gone to long cut-scenes), you are guided by the female computer voice-over, known as Cortana, as she shows you how to aim, shoot, and use your accessories.

I've not played many games where the tutorial is part of the game, but this was very well done.

Top it off with perhaps the best feature in game design I've experienced: auto-save. None of this "look for the glowing blue ball", but rather, you finish a level, the game saves, and you have no need to go back and re-load at the last save some 30 minutes ago if you are killed. The auto-save feature is the best game improvement ever since games moves away from the arcade-style "3 lives and you're dead" meme that lasted through the early-1990s. If having to go back all the way to the beginning to the Green Hill Zone for the umpteenth time killed my interest in conventional 1990s games (and sent me to the Sim games), then having to level-up and look for blue balls is about to kill my interest in conventional 2000s-era games.

Halo lets you play as much or as little as you like, and you are not punished for it by facing dozens of rounds of the exact same battle sequence just so you can advance your skill set to include some spell, which frustrated you so much the last time you played that game two months ago that you put it aside.

The only problems I have with Halo are the confusing maps and unfair fights. I found myself wandering in circles in beautiful terrain for nearly an hour before I walked enough of the right zones to activate the next cut scene. Also, facing a barrage of ten thousands alien bad guys all by yourself when you have one bullet left and one health point blinking red is disheartening, prompting many times to "restart the level" with full ammo and lots of health.

If those are the only two faults in Halo, then the game is fantastic.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Video: Driving Around Houston's East Side Part One



The video was taken with a helmet cam, to test the camera, my ability to do some very minor editing, as well as how the video looks on YouTube. This is only a test.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Troubleshoot: Failure to Solder

While attempting to solder three wires in the RJ45-DB25 connector, I found that the soldering tip was turning dark. Solder would not melt onto it, despite the iron being plugged in for over a half hour. I don't know why the tip went so fast, but I think tips are cheap. I hope replacing the tip will be the solution to that problem.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (to the finish)

The pace of the book continues to accelerate as one nears its end. Indeed, more happens in the last two chapters than in the first four. Best of all, there are no loose ends.

Remember Harry hearing voices that no one else could hear? He also speaks a language very few people can speak: Parseltongue. This leads Hermione to suspect that the creature freezing/stiffening people around school is a snake.

However, Hermione herself is frozen/stiffened, and Ron and Harry have no idea what do regarding the attacks at school. They visit her in the school's hospital ward, and find a note that she had written, which contains information leading them to the Chamber of Secrets.

A lot happens in a short time, but here's some things to consider regarding the big picture:

1) This child's book is a fresh addition to youth literature because unlike the books I read when I was 11 or 12, this one fits neatly between Morality Tales for Eight Year Olds and Horrific Stories Involving Murder for Sixteen Year Olds. Around age 11, I found books geared for people my age to fall into one of the two categories above. There was classic literature, but those books are invariably about some time before the present. Harry is, for the moment, close enough to the present in terms of speech and mannerisms to not be a distraction.

2) Harry and his friend break so many rules, in the context of their own school, that they fear expulsion much of the time. This is realistic, and the fact that the adults in the story are aware of it, disapprove, but realize the situation that they were in, is encouraging. Rules are not absolute.

3) A fascinating, almost science fiction concept is included in this story, that of the diary of Tom Riddle. Riddle was a student at Hogwarts many decades earlier, and wrote a diary that preserved him as "a memory". Essentially, a kind of mind uploading, and the diary possesses a form of artificial intelligence. I say "kind of" and "form of" because this is a story about magic, not technology.

4) Finally, Tom Riddle, in his fight against Harry, near the end, channels a stereotypical villain from a James Bond movie. "Hello, Harry. Welcome to my secret lair. Let me tell you my story, my methods and techniques, my plans for the future, and all details contained therein, and attempt to kill you unsuccessfully."

Overall, this second Harry book is better than the first, and I'm actually looking forward to it.

The current book I'm reading is neither military history, nor fantasy. It is The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando de Soto.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (up to Ch. 11)

Harry is in deep trouble. People at school are starting to think that he's the one that petrified a cat at the end of Chapter 8, and is also behind two more attacks. This time, a student and a ghost was petrified.

In the meantime, Ron, Hermione, and Harry have been using a derelict girls' restroom to concoct a potion that will transform them into anyone whose fingernail, hair strand, etc, is in the potion. The idea is expose another student as the real culprit. The reason that the bathroom is nearly abandoned is because a very whiny young girl ghost mopes about in there.

This novel has more ghosts than last time, and so far the ghosts don't seem to mature much beyond the point when they died. This grow older, but not maturer, was a factor in Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom that didn't seem convincing. Would not a hundred years or more of fully cognitive experience lead to some self-restraint? I suppose if one's actions had few consequences, there would be little to learn from.

To complicate matters for Harry, the little house elf from many chapters ago, Dobby, has re-appeared. Dobby has powers of his own, his greatest one being annoying Harry. Harry finds out that Dobby somehow prevented him and Ron from entering platform 9 3/4, and later put a spell on a bludger. The bludger is an autonomic tool, in the quidditch game, whose sole purpose is to knock students off their flying brooms. Dobby's spell made the bludger charge after Harry to the exclusion of the other players. This eventually downs Harry, who falls and breaks his arm.

Enter Gilderoy Lockhart. He tries to mend Harry's arm with magic, but instead makes the broken bone disappear altogether. Lockhart's reputation as a master magician begins to falter, and accelerates downward in a disastrous dueling demonstration. During this demonstration, Harry's little-known talent is revealed to his friends and classmates: he can speak to snakes, and make them do things, like stop them from biting people.

If that's not creepy enough, he does so in a language known as Parseltongue, which is obvious to everyone but Harry. As far as Harry knew, he was speaking English to the snake. Take this skill, and Harry being present at all three victims' petrification, and his status as a suspect rises.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione are growing in their character roles. Hermione has an obvious crush on Lockhart, which Harry and Ron notice, but rarely comment on. Ron's sarcasm and ability to insult people is evolving, as well as Harry's ability to be mean. Yes, mean. Harry is downright nasty to Dobby, who doesn't beg much sympathy in the first place.

The three of them belong to a house of students known as Gryffindor. Their arch rival is the house of Slytherin, and its students. The Slytherin crowd are a nasty lot, but Harry and Ron are making their rebuttals more noticeable. What these kids can get away with is stunning, but their parents are not around, and teachers have a life, presumably. Their weekends, aside from quidditch, are essentially unsupervised.

Eleven-year-olds shouldn't require 24/7 supervision, but the level of misery and damage that they can inflict upon each other puts 6th grade gym class to shame.

The book is entertaining, and events are starting to accelerate nicely. Given the power that the students have now, at age 11, one wonders what they can do at age 16.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Test: The RJ45-DB9 Connector

Once you have successfully soldered your wires, and snapped the DB9 end onto the rest of the connector, test it. Incorrect wiring, or a short, can damage the hardware that you are using. You can test your connector with a multimeter. To make the testing easier, use an unconnected male DB9 end, that has metal tabs on the end for soldering. Plug the male end into the connector, leaving DB9 male soldering ends exposed. With the multimeter, set it to test for connectivity. If there is no connectivity setting, set the multimeter to test for resistance. Clearly, if you have a good connection, the multimeter will either beep (if you have a connectivity mode with beeper) or read zero (if you use the resistance mode).




Even with the solder male DB9 end, testing the device with the two probes can be challenge. You have to reference the chart on Ossmann's website, and make sure you stick the probes on the correct respective RJ45 and DB9 ends. That can be especially challenging, since DB9 end may not be numbered, and the RJ45 is most likely not numbered.

Start with the easy ends, like DB9 pin 1 to RJ45 pin 8. They are the first (and last) pins respectively. If you find the connection, you can then easily find the pin ordering, and test from there. The hardest part is keeping your hand still over the correct RJ45 pin, as test each connection one by one. Test both ends, by holding one probe over one pin, and making sure that only the correct pins on the other side connect.




Since the RJ45 side can be hard to test for rapidly, you might crimp another RJ45 plug, and leave the other end of wire uncrimped. Strip each skinny copper wire until there is enough exposed copper to allow simple contact with the probe.

Fortunately, this connector tested well, is ready to move onto a real hardware test.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (up to Chapter 8)

Harry and Ron are in deep trouble. After using Ron's father's flying car to fly to school, both get detention, and Ron gets a screaming letter from his mother. Harry's detention is to help Gilderoy Lockhart answer his fan mail.

Lockhart is an annoyingly self-obsessed professor, who has captured the hearts of a very large segment of the magic population. He is the author of many popular magic books and receives a lot of press. His intense superficial charm is balanced by his arrogance towards the people with whom he interacts directly. His professorship replaces that of Quirinus Quirrell, last seen in the previous book. Quirrel was possesed by Voldemort, and was thus the antagonist. Harry defeats Voldemort (sort of, read the first book to find out how), which causes Quirrel to die.

Later, Harry, Ron, and their overachieving friend Hermione go to the party of a dead person. Apparently, even the dead have parties, social cliques, popularity contests, and other tiresome attributes of life. The party turns out to be a bust, when crashed by a hunting party, who rubbed in their rejection of the host as being worthy of joining their party.

So it goes. The important theme by now is that Harry hears disturbing whispers that eventually lead him and his friends to the scene of one of the faculty's murdered cat. At the same time, they see words on the wall that warn the "enemies of the heir" [because] "The Chamber of Secrets has been opened" (pg 138). I am about half-way through the book, and aside from the bedroom elf scene, nothing in the story arc has gone beyond the minor scrapes that Harry and company get into. I'm expecting an acceleration in the timeline, since I'm half-way through, and the book says that is around Halloween, with November through May to still get through.

Thankfully, the book is a fast read, having spent maybe two hours to get this far into it.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (up to Chapter 5)

To prevent burn-out from reading, by reading too many similarly-themed books, one should read a diversity of books of at least two genres/fields. Since the last book I read was a history/military/aviation book, the next book should be at least not one of those topics. Harry Potter is none of those things, clearly.

I will not bounce back and forth between history books and fantasy, as there are science and science-fiction books to read, as well as monetary policy and classical literature. Being specialized, to a large extent, is very important in one's career or business focus, but being open to other specialties in one's non-profitable time is quite all right. Unless, of course, you are trying to make your otherwise non-profitable time profitable.

Harry Potter is the story of a boy whose parents were killed by Lord Voldemort. Voldemort is held in such fear by the wizards and witches of the magical world that they are afraid to speak his name. In fact, it is sociological traits like these that make these wizards and witches very much like the muggles (who are people who can't do magic), of whom they look down upon. The magic world has shopping, a bank, a school, government, bureaucracies, fads, cultures, and trends. It is more like an English-speaking foreign country with British qualities (to this American), but with magic that the muggle-populated Britain does not otherwise use or its people posses.

Orphaned after his parents' death, Harry is dropped off at his relatives' house. His aunt and uncle treat Harry with such contempt, fear, anger, and hate, that it is a wonder that the British version of Child Protective Services didn't take Harry away into foster care. It is this part of story that reminds me of a lot of English stories about people growing up. One might think that nobody in England had a happy childhood, especially if they were the main character. Everyone grew up, surrounded by nasty, evil parents, step-parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on, except for the shining heroic adults who come and save the kid's life, and the kid goes on to have a wonderfully sublime adventure with new, awesome friends. That sounds better than the foster system anyway.

Harry's escape comes courtesy of the aggressive methods that his assigned school, Hogwarts, uses to get Harry to come to school. Hogwarts is not an ordinary school, because it is located far into the countryside, accessible largely by train, and teaches magic. It is like a boarding school, because the students all live there, except for the summer and winter breaks. The description of Hogwarts is lush, with talking paintings, banquets, new and strange ceremonies, and a sport that is like polo, only on flying broomsticks. Other than all that, it is ordinary in that there are classes, labs, exams, and books.

The first book was about Harry's first year, and the plot slowly unravels to expose the problem. Were it not for the plot line about the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone in the UK version) attempted theft by one of the teachers, the book would be a slice-of-life story. Thankfully, the thrilling plot balances the details of day-to-day at Hogwarts.

In the second book, Harry's civilian muggle life has improved. His rotten family promoted him from sleeping underneath the stairs to having a real bedroom, but conditions deteriorate to the point where he is essentially kidnapped-in-place by his family. Conditions become weird when a house elf displays masochistic tendencies while warning Harry to not go to Hogwarts when school begins.

Eventually, one of Harry's friends from last year, Ron, comes by with a flying Ford Anglia, piloted by his friend's brothers. They rescue him, and take him to live with Ron's family. Harry gets a feel for a relatively normal, wholesome family before school begins, and Harry, Ron, and most of Ron's siblings leave.

Things go awry when Harry and Ron are unable to enter platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station, and try to fly the car to school. They crash spectacularly, and the car flies off in a huff. Otherwise inanimate objects tend to have emotions in the magic world. After causing damage to a violent, but important and cherished tree, Ron and Harry are given detention. That's where I've reached so far.

The world that author J.K. Rowling has created is exquisite. There appears to be no aspect of magic life that is not accounted for and "translated" from the things and institutions that muggles use. Clearly, there is a lot more to these books than what I've written, including the mild soap opera rivalry that the school has ongoing, the amoral instructors, vicious, petty students, nervous overachievers, and the bonanza of odd things to buy on Diagon Alley.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Play: Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy is a long-running video game series created by Hironobu Sakaguchi of Japan. The game started at I in 1987 and is currently at XII, released in 2006. Final Fantasy (FF) XIII will be released sometime in 2008 or 2009. There are several spin-offs and re-makes for newer consoles. I will talk about one of the popular titles in the series, Final Fantasy X.

The gameplay itself is like that of a very long interactive movie. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s, game makers began adding cinematic animations at key points in the storyline, and this trend has evolved ever since. Whether or not you like that depends on your view of gaming.

Very few of the FF titles relate to one another, so each story is different. You can pick up any random title in the series, and not miss a thing, with few exceptions. I will focus on the story, the mechanics of play, and discussion of likes and dislikes.

The story here is that of a young man, Tidus, who is a star at a sport that looks like underwater soccer or volleyball. During a game, a thing that looks a big floating ball of water, named Sin, causes havoc over his city, resulting in much destruction. Tidus finds an old friend of his, and together they fight their way to the first of many bosses. Eventually, the two are sent off to a different place where nobody has heard of the town that Tidus is from. This new place has a unique history, several cultures, a religion, and traditions that Tidus has no knowledge of.

Very soon, he joins a band of guardians whose goal is to protect a Summoner named Yuna, who is about Tidus's age. If video game characters could be said to have chemistry, however awkward and forced, these two have it. After the group sets off, the story really takes it time as you wander from temple to temple, fight bosses, play the underwater soccer sport, and watch several parts of the FF movie.

The story surprised me because I've never played a game before where theological discussions took place. One character is from a culture who are firm atheists, who are collectively persona non grata pretty much everywhere else in this culture. The established religion is revealed to be full of corrupt, power-hungry individuals who seek to destroy Sin for their own motives. When this is revealed, the true believers among the guardians have a kind of psychological breakdown.

At one point in the story, one of the guardians, Kimhari, seeks to restore his honor with his tribe. After doing so, the guardians encounter one of the priests from the religion. This priest, Seymour, has been harassing the group since mid-game, and tried to kill most of them off more than once, and even tried to forcibly marry Yuna. This game villain is surprisingly well developed, with means, motive, and several opportunities to do his bidding. At this stage, Seymour says, in no uncertain terms, that he just killed every single member of Kimhari's tribe, and Kimhari is the only one left.

I am currently in a face-off against this guy, which is where I will discuss the game play mechanics. All fighting is done turn-based. Essentially, your team lines up on one side, the enemies on the other, and you take shots at each other. Last one standing wins. The game automatically sorts out who shoots when, and the player can control the nature of each attack, and against which enemy. For the first half of the game, I was just pressing the X button on my keypad, because most of the enemies were simple to defeat. After 20 saved hours of game play, though, the enemies become more difficult, requiring the switching of fighting guardians. Only 3 can fight at a time, but if all 3 die, the game is over.

If you win, you are payed Gil, which is the local currency, and pick up any number of equipment, power spheres, and AP points. There is a complicated method through which you gain more health, more techniques, more defense capabilities, involving the spheres, the AP points, and a maze-like "sphere grid". Without going into detail, suffice to say, it is to your advantage to wander the sphere grid, picking up more health, etc.

This where the game suffers. Everything is very complicated. Eventually, you have to assess each battle as if it were unique, get your 3 fighters together, and battle your enemies as if you were playing chess. All the techniques that a character can possess has a different effect on each enemy, and is under the influence of the character's spells (cast against them or the enemy). You usually fight enough of the same bad guy that you start to know who you should pit them against, and the game does give advice, saying that this or that particular enemy does not respond well to magic spells, to stabbing weapons, etc. Given sufficient time, you can figure out how to defeat an enemy, but that may take several hours of counter-intuitive backtracking.

Add to this the fact that you if advance through a field of bad guys faster than you're supposed to, and are not advanced enough to fight the boss, you will lose almost every time. After five losses in a row, go back and "level up". Fight the same underling enemies over and over again until you get enough AP points to advance on the sphere grid. By the 30th saved hour, I had to level up increasingly often. I'm up to the 36th hour right now.

And further more, when you lose, you resume wherever you last saved. This itself is not so bad. Having to sit through the same mostly non-skippable dialogs the characters go through is. I found myself leaving the room for a few minutes, while the same movie I've seen ten times before plays.

To hasten my adventure, I had to resort to a walkthrough. Walkthroughs can advance a player quickly, at the expense of removing whatever is left of the game play. I use them minimally, as in one sentence at a time. I like to be challenged, to keep my brain functioning, but not at the cost of spending several hours going nowhere.

On the bright side, the complexity of the game story is deeper than that of most movies or TV shows. Characters grow, mature, get lost, and die (several dozen times). The music is also great, and changes from level to level. I put video gaming, at this caliber, above watching movies or TV. Seen in this light, the mind-numbing variety of attacks that the characters can perform is a challenge to the player to figure out how to win. Ideally, one spends an hour or two everyday on this, enthusiastically, and can defeat the game in about a month or two. I spend an hour or two every week, so I've been playing this game for almost a year-and-a-half. With that kind of timescale, use a walkthrough, and move on with your life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Build: The Right Thigh of the Mjolnir

Many people start their first costume with thicker paper, like cardstock. My printer is bottom-fed, which means that it cannot take very thick paper. Also, since I have the tools and experience for cutting cardboard, I thought it made sense to do that.

Assuming that you've followed the instructions on the Pepakura tutorial on the 405th website, you should have many sheets paper with numbered components. Be sure to visit the sizing tutorial, to make sure that your armor fits. The sizing takes into account height, not weight, so if you're quite large, you may to do trial-and-error on the pieces that you think might not fit. Pepakura is recommended for beginners, so if you make a mistake, you can always go back and try again.

I've started off simple, with the right thigh. Each piece of armor can be downloaded from the 405th website, so you can build the armor one piece at a time. The thigh seemed like an easy start, and by and large it was.

If you've never built a model or been to architecture school, take note that you need to be as precise as possible. Only after years and a dozen models should you trust yourself to gauge what is "good enough". Being a little bit off, even by 1/32 of an inch, can compromise overall integrity, fit, and appearance. Despite my experience and attempts, even this first attempt at the thigh has resulted in a few seams not fitting together quite right. I had to compromise where one piece would fit with all the others.

Hopefully, with enough fiberglassing, the gaps will smooth out. I've never fiberglasses before, so I don't know how that will go. What follows are pictures of what of the thigh that I have completed. It's not done yet, and the missing pieces are obvious.








Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Make: An RJ45-DB25 Serial Connection

The next device that I will make is an RJ45-DB25 serial connection. To the best of my knowledge, DB25 ports can be built to accommodate three types of connections - serial, SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy"), and parallel printer ports for IBM-compatible PCs. The differences are in which pin is a given signal or voltage sent or received. The number of pins vary, as well.

The website Nullmodem.com has a page that lists the pin configurations for all three DB25 connections. Ossmann's instructions for the 5-in-1 cable also includes how to build an RJ45-DB25 serial plug. Scroll down to 'Extras'.

Comparing Ossmann's connection diagram to the one shown on Nullmodem, I see one DB25 pin missing from Ossmann's diagram. That is pin 22, Ring Indicator. The Ring Indicator is, according to Lammertbies.nl, "used by modems to signal an incoming call to the attached computer". Maybe this signal is not necessary nor used if one is in a situation where an RJ45-DB25 connector is useful?

In any case, when it comes to the other DB25 connections, SCSI and parallel printer, neither can pin out to RJ45 easily, if at all. Both use more than 8 pins to communicate.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to finish)

I finished this book tonight, and it has left a profound appreciation for the early growth of aviation, military and otherwise, in the years following the Wright Brothers' flight. The final synopsis, from my notes, follows:

Randolph took on Vietnamese and Latin-American students after 1963. These students were trained on the T-28 (undergraduate pilot), the C-47 (transition course), initially, though more planes and courses were added in later years.

The first college degrees granted by the US Military were Associates in Applied Science, from the Community College of the Air Force (CCAF). The CCAF was established at Randolph in 1972. Air Training Command began granting degrees to those that finished a CCAF program, in 1977. However, that same year, the CCAF moved to Lackland, and then Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1979.

Randolph's initiatives have largely focused on training. Even after busy periods, such as World War II and the Vietnam War, it kept training pilots as similar initiatives at Kelly and Brooks wound down. The pattern of each base having a respective focus is clear.

Lackland had a late start, compared to other bases. It was partitioned from Kelly Field in 1942, and had trouble with its identity until the War Department named the base Lackland, in 1947. Its early history traces with the growth in air training, following Pearl Harbor.

After the war, Lackland became the center of the USAF's indoctrination of basic trainees. You or I would call this Basic (Training) nowadays. With few historical exceptions, all enlisted Air Force personnel have gone through Lackland, since 1946.

Very large increases in Airmen training, at the start of the Korean War, meant that many recruits occupied tents instead of buildings. The situation was similar, though less dramatic, in the mid-1960s, during the Vietnam War.

The section on Lackland is very short, as it lacks the early frontier history of aviation, as well as a runway!

That wraps up the book, up to 117 pages including a Gazetteer and Illustrations List.

Who is this book for? Anyone interested in three out of the four nouns in the book's title: History, Military, and Aviation. San Antonio does not play a strong role, and while the growth of the Air Force in San Antonio from 1910 through 1946 is a part of the city's history, the growth is almost independent of circumstances in San Antonio.

Who is this book not for? Anyone who likes their history with a heavier emphasis on the personalities, the machinery, or with a critical examination. The individually- driven history really fades by World War II, and the history of the airplanes really peaks from the 1930s through the 1950s, in the context of the book. After the 1950s, the book focuses more on the growth and challenges of the bases, as organized, complex defense assets. The drama of the Cold War is missing, though the 1970s and 1980s were by and large a quiet time for San Antonio-area bases. Finally, this book does not have a critical look-back at decisions made. Maybe because unless a decision had widespread negative consequences of an immediate nature, there was no turning back.

Maybe the history of railroads is similar, in that sense. After the burst of construction, the wild personalities of the Robber-Barons, and the transcontinental railroad, there is much less drama to write about. After railroads, airplanes. After airplanes, the space program. After Skylab, the Apples, Microsofts, and the popularization of the Internet. What was new is now de facto, and the excitement and drama moves elsewhere.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 94)

Buying the new field was a more complex issue than for Kelly or Brooks. Benjamin Foulois, who brought military aviation to San Antonio, found a site for Kelly, and funding was appropriated, with little comparable incident, over three months from 1916 through 1917. Later that year, Brooks was founded, again with little incident.

The Randolph site was chosen in 1927, outside San Antonio, near the town of Schertz, would cost $500,000. In 2006 dollars, that is about $5.5 million. The City of San Antonio did not have the money, so eventually the San Antonio Airport Company borrowed money from local banks to purchase land, then exchange the land with the city. The City would then pay the company with money owed from back taxes.

First Lieutenant Harold L. Clark, who had some architectural training, designed the layout of Randolph. On pages 78 - 79, there is a photo spread of Randolph, after many buildings had been constructed. The photo shows the full concentric ring design, with smaller buildings along the streets within the ring, and larger buildings outside. It looks like a master-planned 1920s subdivision, with houses built in the Spanish Mission style. That level of planning aesthetic is rare enough in American civilian settings, let alone on any military base. However, it's easy to get lost on base.

Randolph was the largest Army construction project since the Panama Canal, in the early 1900s. Special attention was paid to optimizing take-off and landing safety. Wires, normally supported by poles, were buried, and railroad tracks were flush with the ground.

Make: The 5-in-1 Cable

The reason that I was learning how to solder was to permanently connect three wires together in an RJ45-DB9 connector. The reason I was connecting the wires was to build a 5-in-1 cable, one of the projects featured in the book Make: The Best Of 75 Projects from the Pages of Make.

This is a marvelous book, full of interesting projects. Its contents are categorized into tools, electronics, microcontrollers, and so on. The cable is from the electronics section.

I chose the cable for two reasons. One was that among the 75 projects, this one actually seemed the most useful. The second reason was that it was a small project of relatively low complexity.

Even with needing to learn how to solder, this project is simple. More importantly, it was fun. The author of the project instructions, Mike Ossmann, suggests more adapters, such as DB-25 and Din 8. His web write-up gives nearly identical instructions as the book does, with added instructions for different connectors. I will report on my progress as things develop.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 76)

The airplanes are as much, if not a greater, part of the story as the individuals.

Still at Brooks.

Aeromedical evacuation did not become the preferred method of moving wounded soldiers until the Korean War. The Convair C-131A Samaritan was the first aircraft whose primary purpose was to ferry soldiers who needed medical attention. Before, during World War II, the C-47 was used. In 1968, the currently-used aircraft, the C-9A Nightingale entered service for peacetime use. Wartime uses the C-130 Hercules.

The first meeting on space flight medical problems was held at Brooks, in 1948. More than ten years later, Brooks personnel developed the prototype for the escape system for the Mercury Program. The prototype was tested on a monkey, and succeeded.

Brooks and NASA have worked together on manned space flight research, especially altitude decompression sickness. Recent research at Brooks has focused on treatments for exposure to the vacuum of space, ebullism. The people who work there may be able to tell if the vacuum exposure scene [not a video link] in 2001: A Space Odyssey is realistic or not.

Onto Randolph Field. The move from aircraft providing a primary defense service, rather than auxiliary, became official in 1926. The location of primary training at Brooks, and advanced at Kelly, meant that when time came to expand the Air Corps, the expansion would occur in San Antonio.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 64)

The book is 117 pages long, and I was reading ten percent of at a time, about twelve pages. This time, I read as much as I could in an hour. There is no need to drag out the days in reading a book, especially if it's a quick read.

Brooks was a Primary Instruction School from 1921 to 1931, when Primary was moved to Randolph field. This book will cover Randolph later. Kelly was Advanced Training while Brooks was Primary. After Primary moved, Brooks got some observation squadrons, but bombardment training overshadowed it by the late 1930s.

During World War II, Brooks assisted Kelly in Advanced Training due to the increase in demand. Formal observation training ceased in 1943. Advanced Training took on the B-25 bomber, which needed newer runways and larger hangars than what Brooks had before WWII. Construction activity increased significantly, including runways and hangars, by the end of the war.

The military established a school of aviation medicine in 1917, which was moved to Brooks in 1926. Brooks lost it and Primary the same year, 1931, to the same field, Randolph. The school moved back to Brooks in 1957. From then, it evolved to the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, still in operation.

Once one doesn't need heroic individuals to make history, the development of institutions can actually become compelling in its own right. I am again struck by how much progress was made in the first half of the twentieth century in aeronautics, both as mac. There is perhaps a contemporary analog to this pace of progress, such as Information Technology, and another to come. Maybe biotechnology?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Build: Mjolnir

Commercials can have a strange effect, especially if one is in the target demographic but is otherwise uninterested. The hype regarding Halo 3 is an example. After going to Video Games Live, and hearing and seeing among other music from various games, the music from the Halo series was played, including the preview for part three. While the music was nice, it didn't cause a personal frenzy.

The fall of 2007 passed, and the TV played the commercials for the game often. Cory Doctorow wrote a post at BoingBoing, featuring a detailed Halo costume of the lead game character Master Chief. None of it was having any impact until after the game itself had been released, but some of the ads were still in circulation. Then, for the dozenth time that year, I saw this commercial.

Never mind the game, or the graphics, what really appealed was Master Chief's costume. Recalling the BoingBoing post, I knew such a thing could in fact be built and worn. A new project was born.

The project began by visiting a website devoted to people who build MC costumes, 405th.com. I read the forums, especially the ones devoted to people new to the hobby. The armor is called Mjolnir (pronounced: "Myol-neer"), hence the blog post title. Many people start off with stiff paper, but I chose cardboard due to experience with building with it before, plus having the tools at hand.

When some progress has been made on the armor, itself, I will upload pictures and descriptions, plus information on the construction progress itself.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Practice: Soldering

No pictures here to show how or what I did.

After the second soldering attempt ultimately ruined the wires in a RJ45-DB9 connector, I thought that soldering wires of similar dimension together would allow me to observe how the wires responded to heat. Using the wires I had practiced on the first time, I stripped off some more insulation, separated two from the thick twist, and then twisted those two together. Soldering those two were easy, with successful adhesion.

The second time, I stripped some wires from the CAT5 cable that I was using to "split" one of the wires in the RJ45-DB9 connector. I twisted those individual CAT5 wires, which are thicker than the wires I was practicing on earlier. I then took the CAT5 twist to just one skinny wire from the practice cable, and twisted.

This time, the twisting went much more successfully than the attempt on the RJ45-DB9 connector. The reason is simple: I had greater length of stripped wire to manipulate than in the connector. The longer stripped lengths permitted one-and-a-half to two full twists, permitted a strong connection that didn't seem all that temporary. These longer wires and and superior initial connection also optimized the soldering connection.

Clearly, more stripped wire length is better when it comes to twisting and soldering.

I repeated the experiment with wires of similar stripped length and similar twist. I initially tried being creative with the twisting, thinking that I might get a superior splice. That didn't work, so just holding all three wires together and twisting is the best way to create a temporary splice, so far. Another change was that this time, I just held the soldering iron against the wires, and waited for the remaining CAT5 insulation to melt, burn, or somehow indicate that the heat was causing a change. The amount of time that passed before the insulation began to receded away from the heat source, deforming as it pulled back, was about a second.

This suggests that when I solder my next RJ45-DB9, I should just tap the solder end to the iron, until some solder melts onto the iron, and tap that liquid solder drop to the twisted wires. Pull back immediately, do not wait, and let cool. A system administrator suggested inserting the DB9-pinned CAT5 wires into the end of the DB9 connector, before soldering. That should reduce the risk of breaking the wires even after an otherwise successful solder.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 49)

Please see Parts One and Two, if you haven't read them yet.

I concluded the portion on Kelly AFB, and began reading the section on Brooks. The section on Kelly ends on the year 2001, before 9/11. Kelly lasted as a base until July 13, 2001.

Some tidbits before moving onto Brooks. Kelly had a role to play in the US Space Program, beginning in 1964. Three Apollo capsule trainers were built. The space shuttle began making refueling stops there in 1979. Kelly's closure was due mostly to shrinking military budgets at the end of the Cold War, but its maintenance program (as of 2001) was itself being maintained by a program known as "privatization in place". Essentially, turn over responsibility of the facilities to private contractors.

Brooks was established later than Kelly, in 1917. Its growth and decline during and after World War I was similar to that of Kelly. Where Brooks stood out in the early 1920s was in the Army's air ship program. However, that program soon ended, after two airships exploded, one of them at Brooks, and one was ripped open by a rail, also at Brooks.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 37)

If, after reading this post, you are confused or wish to learn more, visit the first part of the review. These posts are becoming a cross between a book review and a live-blogging event. Only the event here is my reading a book.

The 1930s were a rough time for budgets, both personal and military. The facilities and equipment built and acquired during the high growth period of World War I were showing their age, and Kelly Field would be put under serious strain during the build up to, and during, World War II. Fortunately, a second round of construction activity began in the late 1930s.

The aircraft continued to evolve. I'm not very knowledgeable of aircraft history in general, so all I can say is that the planes began to look increasingly like the ones you see in movies and historical films. Despite this progress, Kelly Field had amongst the oldest aircraft in the military. Add to this the growth of other aircraft training schools around the nation, and Kelly's role as a flight school began to diminish.

Instead of a training facility, Kelly began to take on maintenance. World War II greatly expanded operations, and with over 19,000 civilians working on the field by 1945, was probably one of the biggest employment centers in a town that grew from 254,000 people in 1940 to 408,000 by 1950. Kelly continued to be a maintenance facility in the decades following World War II.

As an established facility, the character-driven aspects of the history of Kelly Field (Kelly Air Force Base after January 1948) appear to be less dramatic than in its early days, the 1910s. Part of this may be that flying was not quite the frontier that it was in 1911. Standing out in a crowd of tens of thousands of pilots, navigators, mechanics, and technicians is much more difficult than in a crew of a dozen people who stood at the then cutting edge.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Learn To: Solder

Learning to solder (pronouned "sodder", not "sold-er") is essential for anyone who wants to do home-brew electronics work. When one solders, one uses a heating element to melt a spool of wire onto two or more components. Today was my first attempt at soldering, as taught by a good friend. See the accompanying figures and text.




I used wire strippers, some wire, a spool of soldier, and a 12-watt soldering pencil. The wire in question was used for my initial attempt. My next attempt would be to connect three wires together in an RJ45-DB9 connector. Details on this second attempt later in this post.




The first thing to do was strip the wire with the wire strippers. The wire strippers shown belong to my friend, and are appropriate for stripping the wires shown. For the wires in the RJ45-DB9 connector, I had to buy a wire stripper that could strip wire whose diameters are 0.4 square millimeters.




Stripping wires takes some effort, especially if you have never done it before. To be successful at this, you need to cut just the plastic insulation, not the wires themselves. You then pull the insulation off. Using an X-acto knife or your fingernails to strip wires is a less than optimal method.




Heat up the iron. This can take a while, so you might want to start this off first. The iron can warm up to hundreds of degrees, so watch where you put it, your hands, arms, paper, and so on. I brought the top of my hand above the iron, and moved it downwards slowly until I felt warmth. As the iron warms, you will have to move your hand further away. I found that when I had to keep my hand two inches away, the iron didn't warm up past that point.




Once the iron is warmed, place the end of the solder spool on it, letting a bead of solder melt onto it. Move the iron to the wire, coming into contact, allowing the wire to warm up.




Since I was dealing with skinny wires and tiny beads of solder as my first attempt, I found myself looking very closely at the point where the soldering iron met the wire. The wire will warm up after a few seconds, and you can start tapping the solder end to the wire. You know the wire will be warm enough after the wire begins to take on solder, by melting the solder. The wire will suck up the solder like a paper towel sucks up water.




Put just enough solder onto the wire to produce a solder weld, such that the wire and whatever it is that you are soldering it to (another wire, a circuit board, etc), produces a single connection. Do not put enough on to encapsulate the wire; that would be too much. Pull the soldering spool away from the wire, and then pull the soldering iron away. The connection will begin to cool immediately.

I think the first attempt went well, because the solder appeared to bond the wires together, producing a single connection. The wires were not covered in solder.




My second attempt involved soldering even smaller wires. I was trying to solder three wires in total, such that a wire from the RJ45 side of the connector would "split" into two wires towards the DB9 side.




I put a drop of solder on the iron, and moved the iron towards the three wires. I had hand-twisted the three wires together to form a temporary connection. I pressed the bead of solder against the bundle of three wires, waited one second, and then gently tapped the end of the solder spool against the bundle. The wires took on the solder almost immediately, and I pulled away quickly.

The connection cooled, and seemed a success. It was stiff, and solid.

Unfortunately, one of the wires began to pull out of its insulation as I tried to insert one of the DB9 pins into the DB9 end. By the time I had inserted the pin, the wire had broken off, nullifying the desired effect of the soldered connection I had made a minute earlier.

Clearly, more practice at minute soldering is called for, before I attempt at building another RJ45-DB9 connector. The reason for building this connector will be brought up at a later date.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Read: A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio (up to pg 25)

Back in 2004, I was in an architectural history class called "Readings and Criticisms of Architecture". The end-of-the-semester assignment was to write about a particular building (or typology), its history, and critically analyze the intent and effect of the building. I initially wanted to write about military installations, particular air force bases since they were a big part of my childhood.

I made some calls to San Antonio-area AFBs and found a base historian, who sent over two books. One of them, I'm finally reading, A History of Military Aviation in San Antonio. The instructor of the class above wanted me to critically analyze a new dormitory in a different university, so I did.

So far, up to page 25, and the book is quite informative. San Antonio didn't acquire any air training facilities until 1910, seven years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated their flying machine at Kitty Hawk. San Antonio got the first military air facility because the Army (there was no Air Force yet) didn't know where to put the first plane or its caretaker Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois. San Antonio got its air bases nearly by chance!

The amount of trainees grew from three in 1911 to over 47,000 by 1918. The numbers fell sharply during the 1920s and early 1930s, which is where I'm at currently in the book. The amount of progress made in the airplanes themselves is also astounding, evolving from modified gliders to ones made wood and then finally metal.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Setup: Blog

First, there was the Geocities page, then the blog, then another website, and now the blog you are reading.

This blog will be a general information source, to fill in the gaps not filled by the above media sources. A response to friends and family who want to know what is going on. An opportunity for other people who like to read, make, watch, experience, and do. Or, reading about those activities.

Welcome. Please enjoy Blog: Chris Loyd